The Revolution Has Been Digitized: Markers Classic Now on Home Video
Icarus Films' DVD release on May 5 of legendary French filmmaker Chris Marker's A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l'air est rouge), the critically acclaimed epic historical documentary on the worldwide political struggles of the 1960s and '70s, comes at a curious--even propitious--time.
By most accounts, Fidel Castro's failing health jeopardizes his 50-year longevity as Cuba's military leader. His long gone, but hardly forgotten, comrade-in-arms, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was recently celebrated in Steven Soderbergh's much-anticipated four-hour fiction film. And Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff's 2008 documentary, Chevolution, maintained the right balance between irony and repugnance. That iconic image of Che in uniform and beret--which we've seen everywhere from T-shirts to beer bottles--was snapped by journalist Alberto Korda in 1959 at a Cuban funeral march. The film thoughtfully and entertainingly investigates how the photo became the most reproduced image in the history of photography, and came to symbolize revolutions from Paris and Prague to Berkeley. Once again, as it did during the Vietnam War, the US finds itself quagmired in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The world is suffering from an economic collapse. And last year, a "peaceful revolution" finally ousted the Republican Party in favor of America's first black president.
Vietnam provided the pivotal point around which the 1960s revolutionary movements revolved. Marker explores the interrelationship of international politics, global commerce and the human exploitation of the world's workers. Speaking for the director, a French communist party official remarks in A Grin Without a Cat, "Never before has history placed a nation at such a point of convergence for all the world's modern contradictions. And it's because people around the world felt concern for the Vietnamese struggle that they are fighting now for independence, for socialism and for peace."
The films of Marker (The Case of the Grinning Cat, The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, The Embassy, The Last Bolshevik and Remembrance of Things to Come, also available from Icarus), who turns 89 this year, reflect the importance of memory and his passion for history--especially the history of revolutionary movements of the Marxist and new Left variety. A Grin Without a Cat (originally produced in 1977 and then updated in 1993), following the downfall of the Soviet Union, examines the launching of the "new" Left in the 1960s as well as its undoing in the early '70s, caused in part by ideological differences within the movement.
The film deftly combines newsreels from the Russian Revolution and clips from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin intercut with '60s footage of police brutalizing protesters; original material filmed by Marker in Cuba, Czechoslovakia and Washington; and interwoven footage from the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests, May '68 Paris riots, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Che Guevara and Régis Debray in Bolivia, the Shah of Iran visiting Europe and images of an articulate Fidel Castro. In the closing credits, Marker fairly acknowledges, "The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of governments, who would like us to have no memory."
Writing about this period in an accompanying brochure for the DVD, Marker says, "It is by the dilution of all those aboriginal singularities into a big wave that wouldn't have spared anyone anyway that had ebbed and flowed in 1967, that the myth of May '68 would be cemented. A solid cement. Forty years later, President Sarkozy would still find in it the source of all evils, while others mourned a "spirit of May" to be retrieved at all costs in the debris of History..."
The work is divided into two 90-minute sections. Part 1, subtitled Fragile Hands, includes two chapters-"From Vietnam to the Death of Che" and "May '68 and All That"-and traces the growth of the student anti-war movement into the revolutionary surge that nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle in 1968. Part 2, Severed Hands, features the chapters "From Spring in Prague to the Common Program" and "From Chile to...What, in Fact?" moves from the Russian repression of the Prague Spring to President Salvador Allende's overthrow in Chile in September 1973.
If, as Albert Camus wrote, "The journalist is the historian of the moment," it follows that documentarians such as Marker serve as historians for the ages.
Whether or not you lived through the heady times of the '60s and '70s, A Grin Without a Cat should be required viewing as a reminder of the cyclical nature of history.
Cathleen Rountree, PhD, is a culture journalist and film critic. She reviews films for BoxOffice and is a contributing editor and columnist at Documentary.